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What Is First Degree Murder? - Definition, Punishment & Examples

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

This lesson will teach you about what constitutes first degree murder. We'll initially review the definition of first degree murder. Then, we'll examine the punishment for the commission of the crime. Finally, we'll review a couple of examples.

Definition

Every day in the newspaper, on television and in social media, you hear about murders -- from first degree to second degree and more. However, what is the difference between one type of murder and another? And what does it mean when one commits first degree murder?

First degree murder, also known as murder in the first, is defined differently in every state. However, generally, first degree murder is the highest degree of murder and therefore, the most severe type of murder that one can commit. Usually, first degree murder is defined as a willful, unlawful and deliberate killing that is premeditated. Premeditated means that the murder was planned ahead of time. It is primarily what sets first degree murder apart from second degree murder, which is an action still committed with the intent to kill, but is not premeditated.

Punishment

First degree murder carries the highest level of penalties for any crime. The sentence an offender receives varies among each state. Some states, such as Florida, have the death penalty as a possible sentence for first degree murder. Sometimes the death penalty is reserved for first degree murder with aggravating factors, such as: the death occurred during a rape or robbery; the defendant had prior murder convictions; the victim was a judge or police officer performing official duties; or the death included severe violence.

When there are no aggravating factors, a first degree murder prison sentence can vary among states. For instance, in New York, a first degree murder conviction without aggravating factors can result in a sentence of 20 to 25 years. However, other states can include a sentence of life in prison, with a possibility for parole during the sentence.

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